During the three years of this expat adventure, we have been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout Asia Pacific, and as a result, have become very good at judging customer service at the hotels and resorts we visit. We very rarely encounter bad customer service in these travels, mostly because I research the heck out of the places we stay, and because we often go to places recommended by other expats. We have a tendency to rank the customer service we encounter into three categories: good, great, and exceptional. The latter is very rare, but when you experience it you know it. It takes both a special kind of person to deliver that exceptional level of customer service, someone for whom it is part of their very essence, and an organization that has given that person the tools and empowerment to execute and deliver it.
In my post on the Maldives, I mentioned the exceptional customer service at Anantara Dhigu and introduced Cel, one of the staff members who made our stay special. I didn’t ask Cel for any particular assistance. She just took it upon herself to make sure that we had an amazing dining experience at their sister resort one night by personally contacting the chef and making sure we were taken care of. That is exceptional customer service, thinking ahead and anticipating a guest’s needs even before they know what they need. I have been thinking a lot about the difference between good, great, and exceptional customer service as we return from a wonderful week in the Philippines. There, we experienced, and judged, customer service that surprised us. It was all generally good, but some of it was exceptional.
To avoid having to fly overnight to the island of Boracay in the Philippines, we decided to spend our first and last nights in Manila. I heard Manila could be dicey, not exactly the safest city in Southeast Asia, so I decided to look for a nice hotel in a good area. I chose the Fairmont Makati because Trip Advisor said it was new and reviewers gave it high marks (fairmont.com/makati/). I had never stayed at a Fairmont hotel, but figured it was only for a night and then we were off to Boracay. There, we would spend a week at the Shangri-La resort, a hotel chain whose reputation for customer service I was more familiar with.
When we got to the Fairmont, we were told that our room was not ready. That is never a good way to start a trip, but things got much better quickly. Our luggage was stored for us and a very nice woman from the front desk, Clarissa, escorted us to the elegant and serene lobby bar for drinks and snacks. While she worked to get us into our room, she also walked me through hotel management’s process for signing off on a room after housekeeping finished, to make sure it was perfect and ready for guests. That explanation was both helpful and reassuring. Several other Fairmont employees, all of whom knew our name, checked on us and assisted the girls in finding their suitcases so they could go swimming. We were escorted to the beautiful pool area where the girls swam while Karen and I enjoyed cocktails. Clarissa came to the pool and personally escorted us to our room when it was ready. “Well, that’s how you do great customer service,” I told Karen. I left a note about Clarissa for her manager before we left so he would know how pleased we were.
After a wonderful, albeit short stay at the Fairmont Makati, we got on a small propeller plane and made the 45-minute, white-knuckle flight to Boracay via Caticlan airport. We had reservations at the Shangri-La hotel, one of the island’s newest “luxury” resorts, and they were waiting for us when we landed (shangri-la.com/boracay/boracayresort/). I know what to expect at a Shangri-La, and great customer service is usually at the top of the list. We arrived by speedboat from the airport and were greeted personally at the dock by a resort staff member, dedicated to taking us to our pool villa and personally checking us in there.
And that’s when the customer service experiences between the Fairmont and Shangri-La began to diverge. When we got to our villa, it was clear that it was not ready. While breathtakingly beautiful, there were dirty breakfast dishes from the previous guests still on the table outside. The welcome note to the previous guest was on the coffee table. Cleaning gear was lying about the villa, and housekeeping staff was still in the bathroom. We got lots of apologies by the staff who clearly knew this was not right. Given how well the Fairmont handled the exact same problem, the idea of how to do, and not to do, great customer service hit me. It is not just about the people, who are critical to customer service, but it is also about empowering them and giving them the ability to execute on the fly.
The employees at the Shangri-La could not have been nicer or more polite. They just had trouble executing consistent customer service. I have never been to a hotel or resort where I heard the words “I’m sorry” more often. One day, we were at the resort pool and had incredible service from a great waiter, who served us lunch and drinks and could not have been more attentive. The next day, he was nowhere to be seen. It was clear the pool and beach area were understaffed, and we had to signal the lifeguards for service. Because of how they were stationed around the pool, they were way more attuned to guest needs than the wait staff. The following day, the great waiter from before stopped by to check on us and some other guests at the pool, calling us by name and telling us he was back. We were all very happy. Then we never saw him again. We can only assume he had been assigned by his management to another part of the resort. And, for yet another day, the service suffered.
I compare this to what we experienced in the Maldives. For most of the time we were there, it was the same people in the same stations, like Cel, day and night, providing amazing service. By day two, when staff saw us coming, they generally knew what we wanted and how we wanted it. Best of all, they were like ghosts when they did it, very friendly, but always completely unobtrusive. We got to know them so well that they even came over to remind us when it was time to reapply sunscreen!
One night in Boracay, we had dinner at Sirena, the resort’s beautiful seafood restaurant. Maybe they too were understaffed, but we and several other tables got lost that night by the staff. We had been seated outside immediately, and our drink orders were taken and served just fine. Karen ordered tuna, and that’s when things went south. Tuna was on the menu, but only the fish listed on a board behind us was available that evening. Because tuna nicoise salad was listed on the menu, we asked if they could just swap that into the entree. The server was polite but adamant that they couldn’t make the swap. (At this point I imagined Cel from Anantara grabbing that server by the back of the neck and dragging her into the kitchen to find the tuna.) This went back and forth for a few minutes until I saw a man who looked to be in charge. I waved him down and explained our dilemma. He said “yes” to the tuna request and told the server he would make it happen, which is an example of great customer service.
Just as we thought things were looking up, they actually began to grind to a halt for us and the other tables outside. The inside of the restaurant began to fill up and the service staff began to migrate there. We finally got our food, which was good, but after that we were on our own. One table seated near us outside had to wait 15 minutes just to get water. We wanted more drinks, but it appeared that would only happen if I went inside and poured them myself. I finally had to get up and go inside to get the bill so we could leave. It was a pretty bad dining experience. I don’t believe it was the staff’s fault, since many of them worked the dinner we attended the next night on the beach and service was good. I believe it comes down to management and how much they empowered, or not, their employees to deal with customer needs.
Finally, as our departure from the resort neared, we were informed that the Shangri-La would send a cart to take us and our luggage to the dock 15 minutes before departure. We were already nervous about timing because the boat ride back to the airport would have us arriving fairly close to the departure time for our flight to Manila. They loaded us into the cart and only then told us they actually were taking us to the main lobby. I asked why, since the lobby was a ways from the dock. They said that the boats weren’t in yet, which didn’t seem like a good reason since we were going to the dock eventually, which was covered and had lots of seating. After we questioned the plan, they radioed to someone and then said we could wait back in the villa if we wanted. That would only add more time to the process, and we already had closed up the villa and loaded the kids and luggage into the carts. So we reluctantly agreed to go to the lobby. There was more radioing as they drove, and we actually ended up at the dock, where two shuttle boats were parked and waiting.
My thought at that moment was that they do this everyday. How can there not be a well-oiled process that everybody follows? Just as my faith in the Shangri-La began to leave me, we saw a cart come racing down the path toward the dock. In the passenger seat was the gentleman who had helped us load up from the villa. He jumped out of the cart and ran toward us with a bag in his hands. In it was Stephanie’s school iPad, which had been left between the covers of her bed. It would have been a disaster if we had forgotten it, and the effort of this staff member to get it to us before we left was heroic. It restored my belief that the Shangri-La team truly wanted to deliver good customer service.
The Fairmont’s execution of outstanding customer service continued. When we returned to Manila after a long delay getting out of Boracay (prepare for that on all flights in the Philippines), the Fairmont had a car and driver waiting to take us back to the hotel. The delay put us in Friday afternoon rush hour in Manila, which makes Los Angeles traffic look like a NASCAR race. It took us an hour and a half to make the 12-minute ride to the hotel. After a long day of travel, I was ready to kill. When we finally pulled up to the front of the Fairmont, standing there, portfolio in hand, was Clarissa, smiling and ready to welcome the Hamptons back.
It literally was a zen moment for all of us as she lead us past the front desk and directly up to our room, where she checked us in, quickly and efficiently. After she left, the girls noticed plates of cookies and sweets in the room, complete with a note addressed to them and signed personally by Clarissa. The Fairmont Makati is a big hotel, and there were lots of people that front desk manager Samuel Ruperez could have sent to greet and check us in after the hellish car ride. The driver was regularly communicating with the hotel, clearly concerned I was blaming him for the traffic, so the hotel knew our predicament. But Samuel also knew we had had a very good experience with Clarissa, and made sure that she was waiting outside the hotel and was the first face we saw when we finally arrived. It’s amazing how a familiar, friendly face waiting to greet you can ease travel stress.
Like the Fairmont, the intent to provide great customer service was clearly there in every Shangri-La employee on the property. The problems came with the operational execution of those intentions. Before I continue, let me say that our stay at the Shangri-La Boracay was good. Our villa and the entire property was absolutely stunning and I would consider staying there again if we were to ever go back to Boracay. For all of us, the high bar was set at the Anantara Dhigu resort in the Maldives. They provided exceptional customer service through consistency and anticipating guest needs. As my daughter said to me, “The Maldives was so awesome it has ruined all future tropical vacations for us.” That’s a really good problem to have.
I’m fascinated by customer service and love to see who does it well, and how. In my judgement, the Fairmont Makati is a very close second to Anantara Dhigu in providing exceptional customer service. As we were waiting at the Fairmont for our ride to the airport on the last day of our Philippines vacation, I struck up a conversation with Samuel, the aforementioned front desk manager. I pontificated for five minutes about my theories of good customer service. It is the difference between having the intent of delivering great customer service, I told him, and having both the intent and the execution tools to deliver. I gave him examples of how the staff at his hotel had done it perfectly for us. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Oh, Mr. Hampton. That just sent chills down my spine.” I laughed and it was clear to me that this man was, to his core, a customer service geek. He’s clearly instilled that commitment into his staff, as well as provided the processes and empowerment to execute. And this expat, for one, thinks that is how you deliver exceptional customer service.